As she landed at the New Delhi International Airport on a red-eye, early-morning flight on Tuesday, Rani Rampal might have been bleary-eyed but had a smile on her face as she anticipated her day ahead. Having spent the past few months preparing for and then competing and winning the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima, she was now looking forward to returning home to Shahbad, Haryana.
"After spending so much time away from your family, you want to spend some time at home," she says. "Have ghar ka khana (home-cooked food). I'm really looking forward to eating my mother's rajma-chawal."
But Rampal, the captain of the Indian women's hockey team, knows just to leave it at a taste. Rice is forbidden as part of her prescribed diet. "[Scientific adviser] Wayne Lombard has made us reduce the amount of rice and carbohydrates in our diet," she says. "We might have grown up eating it but this isn't a sacrifice. Not if we want to go to the Olympics."
The Olympics remain the ultimate goal for each of the members of the victorious side that has just returned to India. The victory in Hiroshima, as coach Sjoerd Marijne told them, was just a pit stop on the way.
He had explained the matter to them once the team returned to their hotel after beating hosts Japan 3-1 in the final of the competition. "The girls had had a great time in the team bus on the way back and I knew they had to enjoy the moment," he says. "You can be very happy because you played well but you must realise that you don't have anything yet."
.@TheHockeyIndia women's team enjoyed their FIH Series Finals win in Hiroshima 😄💃
( 📹: sjoerdmarijne/Instagram) pic.twitter.com/cWG6RqFrk9
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) June 26, 2019
Marijne is happy for the win but he wants to keep perspective. "This was a tournament we played with lower-ranked countries and a number of them were outside the top 20," he says. "So you were expected to win it. The two difficult matches we had were against Japan and Chile, who were in the top 16 of the world. We were the highest-ranked team and so we were expected to win it. We had the stress of that expectation but we managed that well."
There were moments of struggle, though. After a relatively easy pool stage, India found their first bit of resistance, conceding an early goal before coming back to beat Chile 4-2. Any nerves were shaken away in the final that India dominated from the start. It was that performance against Asian Games champion Japan that gives Marijne most heart. India would still have made it to the FIH Women's Olympic qualifiers at the end of the year simply for making the final, but the side was still determined to go out and clinch the tournament.
That's because a win in the final would give the Indian side 500 ranking points and that in turn would boost their chance of hosting their two Olympic qualifying matches at home. Marijne knows the importance of home advantage in pressure games -- he had been the coach of the Indian men's hockey team when the side beat Germany to claim the bronze medal at the 2017 World League Final in Bhubaneswar. He used that competition to inspire his current set of players.
"The final was also important because we wanted the home advantage," says Rampal. "Coach showed us clips of Bhubaneswar when he was with the men's team for the World League Final. It was incredible the number of people they were playing in front of. And we wanted that for ourselves too. We had the mission that we had to win the tournament and get 500 points. We knew that Japan had already qualified so it didn't really matter to them, but it was important for us."
Having sealed the win, Marijne is aware of its significance but also of what remains to be achieved. He also understands that the side will be faced with multiple obligations on their return. There will be felicitations for some and sorrowful family reunions for others, as in the case of Mizoram forward Lalremsiami whose father passed away on the eve of the semi-final against Chile. But through it all, the Dutchman wants them to keep their eyes on the main prize.
"You have two weeks break off," he has told them. "I demand that the fitness level will stay high. I want them to have a break but I also remind them that you are an athlete 365 days a year. I want them to control their fitness. It's now about those next two matches."